MP joins climate change deniers’ ‘Project Fear’ on net zero
British climate change deniers have stepped up their misinformation campaign about the UK’s target for cutting its annual emissions of greenhouse gases to net zero by 2050.
A new media blitz is being led by Steve Baker MP, who has announced that he has become a trustee of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, the lobby group that opposes policies to tackle climate change by reducing the consumption of fossil fuels.
On 21 May 2021, The Critic magazine published on its website an article by Mr Baker under the headline ‘It’s alright for some: The poorest will pay the highest price for Net Zero fantasies’. The article claimed that the net zero target is a “a ruinous economic experiment”.
On 26 May, Mr Baker followed up with an article in The Sun, complaining about the costs of replacing gas central heating, and claiming that “the poorest will pay the highest price for these carbon neutral fantasies”.
Mr Baker, who between June 2017 and July 2018 was Parliamentary Under-Secretary in the Department for Exiting the European Union, has been the Conservative MP for Wycombe since 2010. He was re-elected at the General Election in December 2019 on a Conservative Manifesto that promised: “We will lead the global fight against climate change by delivering on our world-leading target of Net Zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, as advised by the independent Committee on Climate Change.”
Mr Baker was apparently still enthusiastic about the manifesto pledge after his re-election. As Dr Simon Evans of Carbon Brief pointed out, Mr Baker tweeted on 5 September 2020: “The mandate @BorisJohnson won includes: ‘Reaching Net Zero by 2050 with investment in clean energy solutions and green infrastructure to reduce carbon emissions and pollution.’ And much more on the environment.”
However, Mr Baker’s article for The Critic states: “After a campaign in which environmental issues were dominant like never before, I promised to pay close attention to climate change policy.” Unfortunately, it seems that he has only been listening to climate change deniers. over the past few months.
Unsurprisingly, Mr Baker does not mention that the net zero target is the UK’s contribution to halting climate change, which is causing growing damage to lives and livelihoods around the world. Mr Baker has seen first-hand some of these impacts in his own constituency. In February 2014, he wrote on his personal blog about flooding there, noting “stoicism about the scale of recent rainfall”.
If Mr Baker has read the report by the Committee on Climate Change on Net Zero – The UK’s contribution to stopping global warming, which was published in May 2019 alongside Net Zero – Technical Report, he will know that it concludes that “the UK winter floods in 2013/14 (which created around £450 million in insured losses) and the European summer heatwave in 2018 (which led to wildfires across parts of the United Kingdom), were both made more likely by climate change”.
But in his recent article Mr Baker ignores the impacts of climate change and instead focuses on the supposed costs of reaching the UK’s net zero target. He writes: “The more I study, the more concerned I become that we are launching a ruinous economic experiment when we can least afford it. With their radical plan to fully decarbonise the entire economy by 2050 — “net zero” — that is just what Conservative ministers are embarked upon.”
Sadly, it seems he has not read any of the detailed and robust analysis by the Climate Change Committee. It is certainly true that it could be very costly to reach net zero emissions if the Government adopts policies that are poorly planned and executed. The same is true, of course, of many areas of public policy. On the other hand, analyses by the Committee and others show that the size of the investment required to reach net zero emissions, and hence to end the UK’s contribution to global warming, could be relatively modest.
In its net zero report, the Committee noted that the central estimate for the annual resource costs of reaching net zero emissions would be equivalent to between 1 and 2 per cent of GDP in 2050. It also noted that “if innovation exceeds expectations again this cost could be lower”. This calculation did not take into account economic benefits through avoided climate change impacts and co-benefits, such as reductions in local air pollution, although the Committee pointed out that “benefits could partially or fully offset costs”.
The Committee updated its analysis of the costs in its report on The Sixth Carbon Budget: The UK’s path to Net Zero, published in December 2020. It concluded: “UK low-carbon investment each year will have to increase from around £10 billion in 2020 to around £50 billion by 2030, continuing at around that level through to 2050. That compares to total investment in the UK of around £390 billion in 2019.” This means that the estimated annualised resource costs would be equivalent to less than 1 per cent of GDP for the entirety of the period 2020 to 2050. The Committee’s report added: “Much of the investment spending can be recouped through lower operating costs. These savings, many of which relate to reduced reliance on imported fossil fuels, will rise to around £35 billion by 2035 and £60 billion by 2050.”
While these figures show that the overall impact on the UK economy of reaching net zero emissions by 2050 is likely to be positive, the Committee did note that the costs and benefits may not be evenly distributed within the UK economy, and recommended that Her Majesty’s Treasury should carry out its own analysis of the potential implications for economic policy.
The Treasury’s ‘net zero review’ is still ongoing, but it published its interim report in December 2020. Among its conclusions were: “The transition to net zero will create new opportunities for economic growth and job creation across the country. The demand for low-carbon goods and services will encourage new industries to emerge, with the potential to boost investment levels and productivity growth. Moving decisively in areas of comparative advantage could generate export opportunities and establish the UK as a global leader across the low-carbon economy. Co-benefits from decarbonisation, such as improved air quality, can also be economically significant. However, reaching net zero will also involve costs and lead to significant structural change.”
The Treasury’s assessment was: “Overall, in the context of the rest of the world decarbonising, the net impact of the transition on growth to 2050 is likely to be small compared to total growth over that period, and it could be slightly positive or slightly negative.”
Addressing the costs to households, the Treasury’s interim report stated: “Analysis of households’ exposure to the transition does not show where the costs will fall. This will depend on a range of factors, including the cost of decarbonising each sector, the availability of alternative low-carbon products and the distribution of new green jobs in the economy. However, government will need to be mindful of these issues as they consider the best way to design policy to support the transition.”
This assessment contrasts starkly with the unsubstantiated claims in Mr Baker’s article that net zero “will mean the end of the comfortable lifestyles we have enjoyed for generations”, “only the well-heeled will be able to afford private cars or foreign holidays”, and “increasing numbers of people will be unable to take for granted heating their homes”.
His article included some other inaccurate and misleading information about costs for households. For instance, it states: “It’s no wonder the drive for renewables has led to electricity prices nearly doubling, a rise that looks likely to continue for decades to come.” While Mr Baker did not specify the period to which he was referring, his statement appears to be wildly untrue. The latest figures published on 29 April 2021 by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) of the fuel components of the consumer prices index, in real terms relative to the GDP deflator, show that electricity prices were 28 per cent higher than in 2010. However, accompanying figures show that reductions in household energy consumption mean that actual average electricity bills were only 4.2 per cent higher in 2020 than in 2010 in real terms, and 3.5 per cent lower than their peak in 2013.
Mr Baker’s article also states: “The bill for decarbonising the economy is estimated to surpass £100,000 per household. Whitehall claims the number is lower, but won’t let anyone see their calculations.” This is false. Although he does not cite a source for his figure, it appears to be taken from a press release from the Global Warming Policy Foundation on 24 February 2020, which claimed the cost of achieving the UK’s net zero target would “surpass £3 trillion, or £100,000 per household”. This was apparently based on an accompanying pamphlet that asserted the cost of net zero would be £100 billion per year on average between 2020 and 2050. This is far in excess of the estimates in the careful analysis by the Climate Change Committee.
The Foundation’s pamphlet ignored all potential benefits, such as the very significant savings from avoided imports of fossil fuels, and relied on grossly inflated estimates of the costs of decarbonising the power sector and housing. For example, it suggested that the levelised cost of electricity for offshore wind would be £169 per megawatt-hour* in the period to 2050. This is simply not credible and is contradicted by official figures. For instance, BEIS published Electricity Generation Costs 2020 in August 2020, projecting that the enhanced levelised cost (i.e. including transmission network impacts, etc.) for offshore wind commissioning in 2025 would range from £69 to £85 per megawatt-hour*.
Indeed, the Foundation’s pamphlet seems to have be intended to create unjustified concern about the potential costs of the net zero target, a clear contribution to ‘Project Fear’.
I have now written to Mr Baker to point out some of the more egregious of the false statements in his article. Based on my previous exchanges with representatives of the Foundation, I expect an indignant response, accusing me of trying to ‘close down debate’ or ‘infringing freedom of expression’. It is well known that climate change deniers are only really interested in their own rights to free speech, and loudly protest against anyone else who exercises theirs by challenging their misinformation.
* References to ‘Kilowatt-hour’ in this paragraph were corrected on 22 April 2022 to say ‘megawatt-hour’.